The phenomenal success of the Buena Vista Social Club did much to reawaken interest in Cuban music around the globe, but more remarkable was the effect the album had on the lives of its featured artists. As he approaches his 100th birthday, Compay Segundo probably is the most internationally recognizable of any Cuban living on the island today -- other than Fidel Castro. Ever delighted by his newfound fame, the simpatico, cigar-smoking Compay has toured extensively with his own band since Buena Vista's 1997 release, and his music has been prolifically rerecorded and repackaged to make his once obscure output ubiquitous.
While it's been great to see this marvelous singer, songwriter, and musician get his due, at this point the release of yet another Buena Vista spinoff seems about as exciting as watching Survivor reruns. Ry Cooder has moved on and along with him his exquisite musical integrity. Las Flores de la Vida was recorded in Spain, and the organic intensity of the Cooder-produced recordings in Havana's Areito Studio has been replaced by a fuller and smoother state-of-the-art sound that adds bravura to Compay's humble-hearted songs, employing a '40s ballroom style rather than the spare acoustic soul of his musical origins in Santiago de Cuba.
This is always infectious material, and Las Flores de la Vida is a pleasant, even lovely, compendium of Compay compositions and other Cuban classics. Jump-started by the opening dance standard "La Negra Tomasa," it includes a strained but touching rendition of "Guantanamera" with a nice solo by the master on his self-styled armónico guitar, and a lush version of Miguel Matamoros's "Longina." One offbeat inclusion is Compay's "Oui Parle Français," written in the Cuban songwriter's interpretation of Haitian Creole. The cringe factor comes on the sixth track, "Amor de Loca Juventud," when some embarrassing English vocals are riffed by one of the band members, who sounds like a cumbersome mutation of Tom Waits, Louis Armstrong, and reggae singer Shaggy. Never mind. Las Flores de la Vida continues without pain or glory, another idyll that neither breaks ground nor adds anything really significant to Compay's legacy. What's clear on this album is that he and his bandmates are having a great ride. It's easy to go along.
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